Truer that the Truth

“And when the abyss looks into you—and it will—may you look back unflinching.”

As I sit here, attempting to scratch words into a blank page that will soon turn into ones and zeros typed on a computer screen, I’m at a loss. A loss for words, a loss for understanding, a loss for myself.

Let it be known that I resisted reading Challenger Deep for so long, too long. When I saw yet another YA novel published that (I assumed) did nothing but add to the oversaturation of unrealistic mental illness stories, I put my foot down. For those of you who’ve read my past reviews, you might know how I feel about this very sensitive topic; but for those of you who have not, I highly (and maybe a little biasedly) recommend checking out a post I did on the topic *here.* But in short, for the sake of time and space, I’ve sworn off YA Mental Illness stories for good; so swearing off Challenger Deep was inevitable. And then it picked up in popularity. And then it won the National Book Award. And that is how I found myself hopping on the bandwagon—one of my least favorite pastimes, let it be known—and wondering how the hell I could’ve once lived in a world that didn’t include Challenger Deep.

Caden is a fifteen-year-old boy diagnosed with Schizophrenia.  His ongoing delusion includes a world in which he’s adrift at sea onboard a ship that is venturing for the deepest point on the face of the earth, Challenger Deep. The crew is made up of characters of varying degrees, including but not limited to the navigator who speaks in rhyme, the swabby responsible for mopping the brains that run loose on the deck, and the pirate and his parrot who don’t necessarily see eye to eye—pun very much intended. The novel chronicles Caden’s struggle with mental illness in the most unique, beautiful, and honest way I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

*Spoiler Warning for the rest of the review!*

The whole book is a metaphor. THE WHOLE BOOK IS A METAPHOR. What? Say it louder for the people in the back. THE. WHOLE. BOOK. IS. A. METAPHOR. AND. I! LIVE! FOR! METAPHOR!!! Caden’s delusion, when looked at metaphorically, is not a delusion at all. It’s an extension of reality, one in which he rationalizes the events of his “real world” that are almost anything but rationalizable. In fact, for the first half of the novel Shusterman never explicitly addresses the topic of Caden’s very real mental illness. From the first sentence of the narrative readers are sucked into this world where a boy is out of place on a questionable ship which sails on an even more questionable journey. We’re given no context. No explanation. Left to our own devices to sort out the reality and the delusion—much like those who suffer from schizophrenia do, which I just find so heartbreakingly honest—and somehow this gets the point across so much stronger than if he had listed the facts explicitly. My mind sees the world in metaphor (I wasn’t kidding when I said live for it). So from the beginning it was easy for me to see the parrot as a therapist; and the pirate as an illness; and the crow’s nest as a place patients went to get medication. I know for some it won’t be that obvious, but regardless there comes an instant where everything begins to click, and the shattered world around you is mended through the solace the story provides. Shusterman makes delusion truer than the actual truth.

Structurally, I don’t have too much to comment on—Nicole not having anything to say? I KNOW. SHOCKING. The narrative was not flowery or over the top, which was perfect for the context of the story. The chapters were short and anecdotal, which was one of my favorite parts. Sometimes the most random topic related to the conflict in a pleasantly unexpected way. It’s everything that you’d expect from a YA novel, and in no way do I mean that derogatorily.

Yes, the metaphor was beautiful; yes, the illustrations added to the plot’s grandeur; yes, the characters seemed real in a way that was relatable (A YA book in which the protagonist doesn’t feel the need to fall in love to fix all of his/her problems?!? Sign me up!); but that wasn’t what hit me the hardest. It was the ending, the part in which 99% of YA mental illness novels fail. The ending of Challenger Deep was, to my most pleasant surprise, perfect.

“He [The Captain] will always be waiting, I realize. He will never go away. And in time, I may find myself his first mate whether I want to or not, journeying to points exotic so that I might make another dive, and another, and another. And maybe one day I’ll dive so deep that the Abyssal Serpent will catch me, and I’ll never find my way back. No sense in denying that such things happen.

But it’s not going to happen today—and there is a deep, abiding comfort in that. Deep enough to carry me through till tomorrow.”

I should clarify that I don’t hate the idea of YA novels that tackle mental illness. In fact, I think the fact that there are authors willing to take the plunge admirable. What I hate are the half-assed attempts, the unrealism that permeates through the words of stories that don’t have the marginal space to be untrue. Mental illness is not this snap, poof, Life Is Beautiful and I Am Cured model. The last few pages of a story of this nature should not serve to tie up loose ends. No. The illness will always be there, lurking. Waiting around the corner to make you its victim once more, and the fact that people have to live with that thought is terrifying, but it is honest and THAT is what makes Neal Shusterman’s novel a masterpiece. It’s the ability to capture the emotions in the way they exist honestly, while employing an untrue narrative to reveal the horrors of young life that YA is meant to provide. I believe that an author’s moral responsibility to tell an honest story far outweighs his/her ethical one to use literature as a tool to cushion a reader’s high velocity impact with the facts of the real world, and Challenger Deep is the epitome of why this model works. Shusterman succeeded in writing the single greatest YA Mental Illness story, and I guarantee everything hereafter will fall short, as it should.

I hate to end on a cliché note, but I really do think my world is changed a little bit—as it should be, because every word you read, whether good or bad, should change the way you view the world. That’s the amazing thing about words, books. Syllables come together to form words, words come together to form sentences, and sentences form narratives that extend the actual and change it for all those who read. I wish I could conjure the words to express just how indebted I feel to Neal Shusterman for the words he was brave enough to write, but I can’t. I vehemently believe Challenger Deep is the epitome of the model YA novel—notice how I say YA as a whole. To call it the epitome of YA mental illness novels would be to undersell it—and I encourage you all to take the dive down with Caden. You might just come out of it with things you never knew you needed.

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